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Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2019 09:29PM

As the rest of the world watches, the UK plays out a real-time tragicomedy that the actors know is going to cause severe damage to services and the economy but, like the slow-mo approach to the cliff edge, seem incapable of taking appropriate action to avert the impending disaster. I flew to Bologna on the day of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU (I had tickets to see Ian Anderson on the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour) and fellow passengers laughed at our choice of dates and the confusion we’d have encountered if parliament had approved the Prime Minister’s deal. I was in Genoa the previous weekend where, over dinner with Italian friends, I was asked what on earth we, the UK, were doing. Brexit makes watching televised parliamentary business like watching an episode of The Office; excruciating but compulsive viewing.


Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19
Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Tour, Bologna 30.03.19

Exiting the European Union is an act of wanton self-harm regardless of whatever anyone says about ‘respecting the will of the people’ or ‘give us what we voted for’ but unfortunately the genie has been released from the bottle and conflicting desires following the 52:48 split have used up our wishes to poison debate with hatred and accusations of treachery, fuelled by the personal ambitions of a few die-hards and financed by shadowy figures running insidious Facebook advertising campaigns. As it stands, Theresa May has at last extended an invitation to Jeremy Corbyn to work out some compromise on getting the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 passed, having had her preferred deal, what she regards as the only deal, rejected by the House of Commons three times; we’ve also had a series of indicative votes, seeking out a consensus for a resolution, none of which has commanded any majority in the House. Judging from reports of the current state of affairs it seems that she’s asking Labour to compromise and not shifting her own red lines.


I voted to remain in the 2016 referendum but if we are forced out of the EU, any deal must protect workers’ rights; the environment; the Good Friday Agreement; the rights of UK citizens living within the EU and EU citizens in the UK; food and manufacturing standards; and businesses importing and exporting between the UK and the EU; in other words a soft-Brexit with some form of customs union. One potential model has been coined ‘Norway plus’. Norway, along with Liechtenstein and Iceland, are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). Norway plus, which was proposed towards the end of 2018, would consist of membership of EFTA and membership of the EEA, combined with a separate customs union with the EU to create a trade relationship similar to that between the EU and its member states today. The one potential drawback cited by critics is that the UK would have to abide by EU regulations without any political representation in the EU's bodies, though it encompasses an idealised wish list for a soft Brexit.


I’ve always been intrigued by Norway, from Scandinavian mythology to physical geography lessons during my schooldays in the early 70s. Unlike the UK, who did exactly the opposite with money from North Sea Oil extraction, the Norwegian government created two sovereign wealth funds. One of these was for reinvesting surplus revenue back into global stocks, shares and assets and the other, the smaller Government Pension Fund Norway, invested in Norwegian and some Scandinavian businesses, acting like a national insurance scheme. Norway featured heavily in the second of my Interrail travels, where 10 days were spent exploring the country from Oslo up to Narvik, well inside the Arctic Circle and the farthest north I’ve ever travelled, 68o28’ N.

This trip coincided with campaigning for the 1983 Norwegian local elections, so university friend and fellow traveller Nick Hodgetts and I hung around with the Norsk Arbeiderparti (who had a band on stage singing about social democracy) and the Greens on our first afternoon in Oslo. I really enjoyed Norway; the people, the landscape, the towns and cities, picking redcurrants for a free night and breakfast at Åndalsnes Youth Hostel, and though the trains were frequently crowded, the travel was enjoyable, too. The journey up to Narvik was by bus, having unsuccessfully attempted to hitch a ride from Fauske. The road trip was just over 5 hours long, hugging the coastline and crossing two fjords by ferry. I described it as ‘cosmic’ in my diary, driving along quiet, unlit roads, climbing out of valleys and descending towards the head of a fjord with the mountains darker than the night sky. Just after midnight on the walk from Narvik bus station to the railway station, a casual glance towards the firmament revealed a constantly changing green shadow, fading, growing, shifting and finally dissipating; the aurora borealis clearly visible above the glow of the city lights.


Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983
Early morning mist over Bergen, August 1983

We managed to see a number of free live music performances and though one of the last concerts I attended in the UK before setting off on my northern Europe trip was Pendragon, Solstice and The Enid at the Ace, Brixton on May 11th, an indication that neo-prog had truly arrived (partially thanks to being embraced by Kerrang!) it was striking that throughout the country the predominant musical style and associated fashion was heavy metal, though it was almost impossible not to hear Mike Oldfield’s Moonlit Shadow or Irene Cara’s Flashdance being played on the radio (or some cassette player.)

Whereas I’d started listening to Sweden’s Bo Hansson in the mid 70s and began buying Finnish prog in the mid 00s, I hadn’t actually paid any attention to music from Norway. A couple of years after my Norwegian trip, a-ha became the country’s top musical export with uplifting pop, though the trio themselves were irked that music critics couldn’t see beneath the shiny surface of their songs where the application of classical theory and a rich harmonic language made them mini-symphonic masterpieces straight out of the book of prog. Also around that time, the Norwegian love-affair with heavy metal evolved into Norwegian black metal, a sub-genre that peaked in popularity in the early 90s and was considered to rival Swedish death metal. I remain unconvinced that Sweden’s Opeth should fall under the prog banner despite prog flourishes amongst what I still hear as death metal and I that have been and am equally dismissive of black metal groups from Norway that have adopted prog stylistic leanings. However, when the third wave of progressive rock surfaced in Sweden and the USA in the early 90s, if it wasn’t quite metal with prog sensibilities it could certainly be classed as material close to the sound of Red-era Crimson; heavy prog but not prog metal.


My first taste of Norwegian prog was a set from Arabs in Aspic at the 2017 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa. Not knowing what to expect, I was nevertheless impressed with their brand of prog which though biased towards the heavy end of the spectrum, contained sufficient melody, variation and surprises to suit someone more accustomed to symphonic prog. They sang and communicated to the almost exclusively Italian crowd in excellent English, reminding us that we were united by progressive rock. They also formed the backing band for the Saturday headliner, space-rock legend Nik Turner.


Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017
Arabs in Aspic, Porto Antico Prog Fest, Genoa, July 2017

When I first bought Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files I used to take it around Europe as a reference when I went into record stores until it became worn and fragile. This was also the source of my first interest in Anekdoten and Änglagård, expanding my knowledge of Swedish prog. The book was eventually replaced with Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Handbook, a more complete and up-to-date volume with a set of different album sleeves presented in full colour. One of those depicted was Wobbler’s debut Hinterland (2005) which, I’m ashamed to say, I paid absolutely no attention to.


Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook
Jerry Lucky - The Progressive Rock Handbook

I’m pretty sure I saw adverts for Rites at Dawn around the time of its release in 2011 but it was From Silence to Somewhere (2017) that finally hooked me. One of the people I follow on Twitter had raved about it when she got her copy but at the time I didn’t follow up the recommendation. Some time early in 2018 I’d been browsing on Bandcamp and somehow ended up on the Karisma Records page which linked to the band, where I ended up listening to it, was blown away by it and bought a copy on vinyl. Hinterland (on vinyl) and Rites at Dawn (CD) followed and since then I’ve bought Hinterland and From Silence to Somewhere as presents for my brothers. I’ve also just ordered a remastered CD of Afterglow (2009) as a present to myself. The music sounds like early 70s symphonic prog, largely thanks to a keyboard set-up that would not have been unfamiliar to Rick Wakeman while recording Fragile, and trebly Rickenbacker bass. It’s a full sound, well structured, expertly played and nicely produced. Wobbler certainly aren’t afraid to stretch themselves with lengthy compositions, all of which could attract the criticism that they’re merely regurgitating music from 45 years ago rather than progressing, but the band started out playing music that they liked without worrying about where they would be pigeonholed. I like it, too. I like it very much.


The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)
The Wobbler collection (as of April 2019)

It was while I was selecting a CD of Hinterland for my brother that I came across Jordsjø, another band allied to Karisma Records and after checking the reviews, bought Jord. There are some similarities with Wobbler but in the main they play prog with a large dose of Scandinavian folk. It reminds of the An Invitation EP by Amber Foil, not only in the palette, but the feel of the music which evokes unidentifiable forces dwelling in some dark forest. I’m a big fan of the flute on the album which adds to the folk feeling but the last track is something very different, though equally good – an electronica outing that could easily have been composed by Tangerine Dream in the mid 70s.


Jord by Jordsjø
Jord by Jordsjø

So if the UK is to leave the EU, and the leaders of EU countries are discussing this as I type, I’m going with Norway...




By ProgBlog, Sep 12 2018 10:01PM

On a recent trip to my local retro-fashion and second-hand vinyl emporium Atomica, I bought a classic piece of 70’s electronica Timewind by Klaus Schulze and also picked up Kate Bush’s Lionheart from 1978. David and Nicky, who own Atomica, are into 60’s psyche and 70’s prog so, while I flicked through record sleeves and In the Court of the Crimson King was playing on a retro record deck, the conversation turned from Kate Bush sophistipop (their term) to the paucity of progressive rock in the 80s.

In common with some other commentators, I believe that the golden age of progressive rock ended in 1978, although that’s not to deny some good progressive rock music was produced afterwards; it’s simply that the industry and the market changed. Writing in a 2014 blog, I addressed what I called the ‘lean years for prog’ and referenced my gig diary; between Fairport Convention at Wimbledon Theatre in January 1985 and the unexpected but very welcome reunion of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe who I witnessed at Wembley Area in October 1989, I attended only two gigs: John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon in March 1987, and a resurrected Pink Floyd at Wembley Stadium in August 1988. It’s possible that the stunning presentation of the Floyd live show, complete with crash-diving Stuka bomber and evil flying pig reinvented the concert as rock music spectacular but from a personal perspective, it was the music that stood out. Their descent to mainstream rock (albeit with appropriate sentiment) covering parts of Animals, all of The Wall and The Final Cut was thrown into reverse with A Momentary Lapse of Reason which I’ve previously stated was a return to (progressive rock) form. Although I commented on what I was buying in lieu of prog I didn’t cover, and have never really written about, neo-prog.





The demise of progressive rock at the end of the 70s was inextricably linked to free market dogma, the predominant ideology at the time and one that was opposite to the counter-cultural beliefs that had inspired the movement. Punk may have briefly surfaced between 1976-8 as reaction to the perceived excesses of some of the established bands and musicians but it was quickly hijacked by the nascent publicity machinery, a major part of the UK’s replacement for a decimated manufacturing base.

Punk can be seen as a discontinuity (if you’ll forgive the geological pun); progressive rock was the dominant style in the preceding years and new wave would follow. For existing artists, moving away from prog was less a conscious decision and more of a drift towards conformity under pressure from a music business that was changing from an ethos of supporting artistic freedom (that somehow still managed to sell millions of albums) to one of commodity. Examples of record company interference might include the imposition of external producers to capture the immediacy of punk, or simply the insistence that a band produce a hit single or get dropped from the roster.

Punk may also have illustrated the bleakness of ordinary lives but in reaction, this readied the world for a bit of glamour: Fashion and music, the rise of style over substance. Fortunately, some of the next generation of musicians, those born in the late 50s and early 60s who had grown up listening to progressive rock, made a conscious decision to emulate these groups, sometimes injected with an attitude borrowed from punk or the fashion of post-punk. However, before the appearance of these neo-prog acts, King Crimson were making a reappearance as a cross between polyrhythmic progressive rock and new wave sophistipop, thanks to the inclusion of former Talking Head Adrian Belew in the line-up. The Discipline-era King Crimson lasted from 1981 to Sunday 12th July 1984, the morning after the last show of the Three of a Perfect Pair tour, during which time I managed to see them live on two occasions, the first as the pre-King Crimson Discipline.


Asia had also convened in 1981, releasing their eponymous debut album in March 1982. An easy target for critics, they were seen as yesterday’s musicians with nothing new to give but fortunately for the band, millions of ordinary members of the record-buying public disagreed and somehow Asia managed to ride the zeitgeist for a few years. At the time, I was happy to buy Asia without having heard a single bar of the music, simply based on the line-up. The end product was undoubtedly slick but it wasn’t progressive rock and I really wish they’d taken a different approach. Though it wasn’t terribly adventurous, the musicianship still manages to shine through despite this inability to challenge the listener. I also think the lyrical content conforms to the prevailing political climate of the time, where the subject matter is primarily about relationships, love, and sung in the first person. It’s inward-looking, what the world is doing to the singer, putting the individual at the centre. These were the new world values where the politics were far from progressive.


Out of some misplaced sense of loyalty I also bought the second Asia album Alpha when that came out in 1983 and a couple of months later handed over my cash for Yes' 90125. This proved to be a qualitative move away from classic Yes music, incorporating MTV- and radio-friendly tunes from which all traces of analogue keyboard had been eradicated. The shift towards more accessible music affected the existing Yes fan-base more than it did the fans of band members who made up Asia. Asia was a new band with no previously defined sound of its own whereas Yes had considerable history and, despite sometimes seismic personnel changes they had always maintained a particular world-view; 90125 is radically different, with a combination of guitar-heavy material from Trevor Rabin and Trevor Horn’s brash production. It may have become the best–selling Yes album but it divided existing Yes fans, with substantial numbers, like me, who could barely relate to the overtly commercial sound of a compressed sonic palette and what felt like a retrograde step towards generic 80s rock.

Yet hidden beneath the clamour created by the surprise continued success of some big names from the progressive rock genre, there were a few acts with a loyal live following struggling to get the attention of record labels, plying a music very closely related to classic 70’s progressive rock. My dalliance with neo-prog consisted of prevaricating about buying Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear when it was first released in 1983, ‘Marillion’ being a shortened form of the band’s original name, Silmarillion, after the JRR Tolkien history of Middle Earth; buying the Garden Party 7” single (b/w Margaret) because it was cheap; recording a live radio broadcast of the Fugazi tour from Golddiggers in Chippenham in March 1984; buying the 12” single of Kayleigh b/w Lady Nina (extended version) sometime in 1985; and going to see The Enid with a variety of neo-prog support acts including Pendragon and Solstice at the Ace in Brixton on 11th May 1983.






The absence of column inches dedicated to my old favourites meant that I no longer regularly bought anything from the music press and therefore missed out on seeing the two best neo-prog bands, Marillion and IQ. Someone gave me a copy of Marillion in Words and Pictures by Carol Clerk for a birthday in the early 90s and around this time, when seconded to work in Saudi Arabia for a few weeks, I bought an unauthorised Marillion compilation on cassette. I reappraised the lack of Marillion in my collection in 2008 and got Misplaced Childhood on CD, and downloads of Script and Fugazi; having read sufficient good things about IQ and seen Martin Orford play in John Wetton’s band, I also bought a download of The Wake (1985) at the same time, and received the 30th anniversary Tales from the Lush Attic after that was released in 2013; I’ve since bought vinyl versions of Tales from the Lush Attic, The Wake, Script for a Jester’s Tear and bought a download of IQ’s Dark Matter (2004). Also, while looking for Spanish prog on holiday in Barcelona in 2010, I came across a second-hand copy of Pendragon’s Masquerade Overture (1996) in Impacto for €9.95.



Subsequent to my rediscovery of UK neo-prog, a trip to Milan earlier this year turned up a book about Italian prog, Rock Progressivo Italiano 1980-2013 by Massimo Salari (Arcana, 2018) which covers neo-prog and the 90’s progressive revival, quite different from the other progressivo Italiano books that tend to concentrate on music of the late 60s and 70s. My decision to buy Italian vinyl whilst visiting the country means I’ve unwittingly started to collect Italian music from the neo-prog era, the most prized being Ancient Afternoons (1990) by Ezra Winston, voted the best Italian album of the 90s by Prog Italia magazine, followed by Dopo l’Infinito (1988) by Nuovo Era and Heartquake (1988) by Leviathan, which were number 2 and number 7 respectively in Prog Italia’s Italian albums of the 80s – Ezra Winston were first with Myth of the Chrysavides from 1988.





One of the criticisms hurled at Marillion in particular, was that they were just a rehash of early 70’s Genesis. Fish’s predilection for greasepaint and costume changes must have added weight to that argument but it is actually guitarist Steve Rothery who comes across as being most influenced by Genesis with a playing style based on Steve Hackett and Dave Gilmour and Andy Latimer. It’s also well documented how much Gabriel-era Genesis influenced the Italian progressive rock bands but that influence also affects Italian neo-prog, with much of Ancient Afternoons referencing the pastoral charm of Trespass; however, both Heartquake and Dopo l’Infinito have a more modern sound, more akin to UK neo-prog than 70’s classic progressive rock. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that there are a number of different Marillion tribute acts in Italy – I saw Mr Punch perform an accurate recreation of Misplaced Childhood last year at the Porto Antico Prog Fest.




Another Italian band that I follow who came together during this time are Eris Pluvia. They released Rings of Earthly Light in 1991 and later reformed as Ancient Veil; both versions of the group, with Alessandro Serri and Edmondo Romano as core members, play a broader range of styles than Leviathan or Nuovo Era, demonstrated by jazz phrasing along with Serri’s Hackett-like guitar, and some very prog-folk moments thanks to Romano’s use of a full range of wind instruments.


My previous contention that the 80s was largely devoid of interesting music was totally misplaced. 70’s style progressive rock may have disappeared but both the industry and the market had changed when I didn’t. I was dimly aware that something was going on but declined to fully engage, spending my time and money seeking out albums to fill the gaps in my 70’s-centric collection, consequently missing out on a range of bands that I should have embraced. I do now.





By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2014 03:33PM

It's mid December and I'm in Bah! Humbug mode. The endless incitement to consume that began gearing up in October is now reaching fever pitch and I’m feeling bad that I feel bad about the whole season. It's not that I don't like giving but I prefer not to be bullied into becoming a slave to this celebration of the unnecessary and shallow. 40 years ago, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock, there was a tug between those promoting commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance. In a socio-political context, this was the height of the cold war and the ideological battle was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms; the West was fighting dirty, their propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality as money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day; power to the consumer! Power to consume!

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. My seasonal preference predates the Christian hijacking of Saturnalia, back to the pagan solstice; one where we simply recognise the end of a solar cycle without resorting to over-indulgence in food and alcohol. What do I wish for at this time of year? Peace on earth (yes, really!) and much stronger regulation of the food, drink and advertising industries.

Much of progressive rock owes a debt to church music. In In My Own Time, Kim Dancha’s authorised biography, John Wetton spoke of his use of chordal structures based on the harmony and counterpoint found in church music, citing the influence of his elder brother Robert who became a church organist of some accomplishment; Steve Hackett has acknowledged the influence of church music on Genesis material; and Jan Akkermann has referred to Eruption (from Moving Waves) as “patched-up church-y ideas, sacral stuff” describing that he made “blues out of those neoclassical church-like harmonies.” Chris Squire was a choir boy at St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and has spoken of the influence of church and choral music on his writing; though largely hidden within his co-written Yes-epics, the song-form on Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water is steeped in ecclesiastical influences, where he’s helped out by former school friend and band mate Andrew Pryce Jackman on keyboards and enlists the help of Barry Rose, the sub-organist from St Paul’s cathedral who plays pipe organ.

The cultural significance of the church within progressive rock has been thoroughly covered by academic authors such as Bill Martin and Edward Macan. The genre is peppered with references to liturgy, from the straightforward Credo by Refugee to the psychedelic retelling of Revelations by both Aphrodite’s Child (666) and Genesis (Supper’s Ready.) Perhaps the most overt church music albums are Mass in F minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes and the first album by Italy’s Latte e Miele, Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972). Mass in F minor was not really a full Electric Prunes album and it’s not really prog. The music was written by David Axelrod and he felt he had to draft in other musicians from Canadian group The Collectors to complete the project, a mix of acid rock guitar and Gregorian chants, sung in Latin and Greek. It’s a strange mix but somehow it works really well. Some critics have labelled Latte e Miele as an ELP clone, partly because of their keyboards/guitar/percussionist line up and partly because they include a Bach quotation that appears almost note-for-note and with the same feeling on The Three Fates (Clotho) from ELP’s first album. Such criticism is grossly unfair because 16-year old drummer Alfio Vitanza also adds flute, contributing to a pastoral feel that conjures up suggestions of early Genesis; I’d argue that the inclusion of Mellotron and string synth are the antithesis of ELP. It should be seen as a brave move for a first album and is rightly regarded as being something of a minor RPI classic.

That a band formed in a British public school should display influences from the church is hardly surprising. What is slightly more unexpected is that young musicians, absorbing blues, jazz and rock influences from the US, music born of repression and rebellion, should also exhibit a debt to music that, on reflection, reflects a deeply authoritarian way of life. I suppose it’s only symphonic prog, where the prevalent form is European art music, which truly fits this picture. These musicians grew up in a post-war society where religion played an important role in providing spiritual solace in the years following the massive loss of life and wanton destruction. This thinking was challenged by the pointless wars that occurred in faraway countries throughout the 60s and 70s and by the ideals of the counterculture when prog followed the trail of The Beatles and looked eastwards. These outside influences and experiences were revelatory; this wasn’t a clash of cultures because individuals were actively seeking alternatives to Western consumerism, leading to the dawn of the understanding that other belief systems were equally valid. The end result was that the prevailing church music, largely based on catholic and protestant doctrines, lost its religious baggage and became spiritual. On Aqualung, Jethro Tull play out a rejection of organised religion and on The Only Way from Tarkus (which describes itself as a hymn), ELP appear to take a humanist stance: “People are stirred, moved by the word/Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the wine/How was the earth conceived? Infinite space/Is there such a place? You must believe in the human race” and “Don’t be afraid, man is man made”.

During the 70s the church organ became an instrument of the prog keyboard player. Rick Wakeman played the organ at St Giles’, Cripplegate, part of London’s Barbican complex on The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the organ at St Martin’s, Vevey, Switzerland that was used on Going for the One and the solo album Criminal Record, an album that was something of a return to form; Keith Emerson uses St Mark’s church organ on Tarkus; Rick van der Linden plays the organ in the church of Maasluis (near Rotterdam) on the eponymous first Trace album and the organ of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem on the second album, Birds; on Hamburger Concerto Thijs van Leer plays the organ of St Mary the Virgin, Barnes (the album was recorded at Olympic Sound studios in Barnes.) Hamburger Concerto includes the track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and when I was presented with the opportunity to visit Strasbourg for a scientific meeting, I took time out to visit the cathedral which is suitably impressive; a gothic masterpiece rising from the cobbles of a fairly densely hemmed-in square.

I like church architecture and the space they contain from a mathematical point of view. I like church music but I disassociate it from worship. Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme described how, during La Serenissima, there use to be two choirs in the basilica di San Marco, one on either side of the congregation, singing in stereo. Prog has absorbed bits and pieces of the form and few overt references to a specific god remain. The search for enlightenment, which runs throughout many prog compositions, doesn’t come across as religious; it’s head music which requires conscious engagement without the requirement for religious baggage. That’s something to think about if you receive any progressive rock as a present this Christmas.

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